The Messaging App Fueling Syria’s Insurgency

Are you a Syrian rebel in need of U.S.-manufactured assault rifles, or even a tank? You can buy it on Telegram.

In rebel-held Syria, access to the weapons you need to wage an insurgency are just a tap away thanks to an encrypted messaging app. The Islamic State may be in retreat, but other militants in Syria have been trading thousands of weapons in publicly accessible black markets hosted on Telegram, including dozens of U.S. military assault rifles and parts for the same kind of anti-tank missile systems distributed by the CIA to anti-Bashar al-Assad rebels. Foreign Policy conducted an exclusive investigation to determine the scale of these arms markets, and where the weapons that ended up on them originated.

The markets have hosted over 5,000 users and catered to buyers and sellers primarily based in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib, according to information posted by users. The province is home to a diverse array of rebel groups, including factions that used to receive advanced weaponry from the CIA, but the al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham represents far and away the strongest force there after ousting its rivals from power.

Some of the U.S.-made weapons available on these markets likely first entered Syria as part of an ill-fated Pentagon program to train and equip fighters in northern Syria to take on the Islamic State. The Barack Obama administration ended the effort in October 2015, after U.S.-trained commanders were kidnapped and shaken down for arms by al Qaeda soon after crossing from Turkey into Syria — but the American guns from the program continue to live on in illicit arms markets. The American arms, however, are just a small part of thousands of weapons being traded by Syrian militants on the online black markets hosted on the Telegram messaging app.

Provided with a list of serial numbers and accompanying photographs of Defense Department arms for sale in the markets, a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve said that the coalition believes the weapons “may have been part of the now-terminated Syria Train and Equip program that supported Vetted Syrian Opposition forces.”

This photo: Foreign Policy was able to identify serial numbers for at least 28 different American weapons in Telegram markets. A spokesperson for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State operation said the coalition believes the arms “may have been part of the now-terminated Syria Train and Equip program” that provided weapons to Syrian rebel forces. Top photo: Syrian rebels in Telegram arms markets appear to have access to a wealth of U.S.-made firearms, including a range of M16 assault rifle variants, M4A1 carbines, and an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. (Foreign Policy screenshots)

The apparent diversion from the Syria Train and Equip Program represents another in a series of black marks for the much maligned 2015 effort. At the time the $500 million initiative was closed down, it had trained fewer than 150 fighters and failed to mount an effective opposition to the Islamic State.

The spread of weapons from the program into the black market is just one example of how the United States has struggled to ensure the security of arms transfers in support of America’s war against terrorist groups. In the chaos following the fall of Mosul in 2014, the Islamic State captured huge stockpiles of American-made firearms, armored Humvees, and tanks from fleeing Iraqi troops. In the rush to buttress Iraq against the terrorist group’s advance, the U.S. Defense Department lost track of over $1 billion worth of arms sent to Iraq and Kuwait. Iranian-backed Shiite militias and other militant groups also got their hands on some of the billions of dollars’ worth of arms Washington sent to partner forces in Iraq and Syria to help them fight the Islamic State.

The CIA’s program to arm and train anti-Assad rebels with TOW anti-tank missiles and other small arms has also suffered from diversion, after corrupt Jordanian intelligence officials skimmed arms from the program to sell on the black market.

The U.S.-led coalition’s partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led army that recently liberated the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, has so far fared better than previous efforts to train rebel groups in Syria. However, the potential for arms diversion from the SDF is a sensitive diplomatic issue: Turkey, which considers the SDF’s Kurdish fighters to be terrorists, worries that U.S. weapons meant to fight the Islamic State might eventually be turned on its own soldiers. In response to Turkish concerns, an Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman pledged that “Every single one of these weapons that will be provided to our partner forces will be accounted for and pointed at ISIS.”

The markets also offer a window on the scale and scope of weaponry and equipment now available to Syrian militants. The Telegram channels have offered everything from Cold War-vintage surface-to-air missiles to anti-tank weapons, armored vehicles, suicide belts, assault rifles from Russia and Serbia, drones, and Iranian thermal scopes, among other items.

Foreign Policy could not independently verify that sellers in the markets actually possessed the individual items advertised for sale. But the scale of the markets — encompassing thousands of users and posts with mostly unique imagery of weapons dating back at least two years — suggests that the channels facilitate at least some arms trafficking. Weapons often take circuitous routes from manufacturer to end user, passing through different owners through loss, theft, or sales. While FP was able to determine the make and model of some of the weapons offered in the channels, it could not trace every step in the items’ path into Syria.

Left: An SA-7b 9P54M man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) launch tube likely dating back to the early 1970s, one of a number of MANPADS identified in the hands of militants throughout the Syrian civil war. Right: Two suicide belts advertised for sale with prices of $150 and $50. (Foreign Policy screenshots)

Craigslist for militias

The markets, based in a handful of Telegram channels with a few thousand members, allow anyone with a link to the market to post pictures of weapons for sale or contact sellers. They resemble chatrooms, with sellers posting photographs of weapons often taken inside homes with a description of the item, a suggested price, or the location where a buyer can meet to pick up the weapons. Buyers can either post a public request for the weapons they’d like to buy or direct-message a seller to agree on a price and location to meet up and complete the sale.

The Telegram arms markets in Syria function as a kind of social media Craigslist, with little apparent central administration. With much of the markets’ trade taking place in rebel enclaves, the absence of a government regulating the arms trade has given buyers and sellers little cause for anonymity, with members often posting their cellphone numbers and locations openly.

A review of locations mentioned in the markets indicates that much of the markets’ user base is located in Idlib province, where the al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has recently consolidated its hold on power. The provincial capital of Idlib City and the city of Jisr al-Shughur are among the most frequently cited locations.

In that sense, the Telegram arms markets operate in a similar fashion to other social media arms markets that have sprung up in recent years, including Facebook markets for weapons in Iraq and Libya. Facebook has officially banned arms sales on its platform, but such markets still persist in conflict zones such as Iraq.


FP was able to identify 28 different firearms — 17 M16 assault rifle variants, nine M4A1 carbines, one modified M16A2 type carbine and one M249 Squad Automatic Weapon light machine gun — for sale with visible U.S. Defense Department markings and serial numbers. Prices for the weapons listed by sellers ranged from $900 up to $3,500. The markets also hosted advertisements for a number of other firearms bearing Defense Department markings but with no visible or only partially visible serial numbers, suggesting that more U.S.-issued weaponry may be available.

In addition to U.S. military firearms, the arms markets also included AK-103 and AK-104 assault rifles (left and right, respectively) made by Russia’s Kalashnikov Concern. FP reached out to both Kalashnikov Concern and the Russian Ministry of Defense in an attempt to trace their path to Syria, but Kalashnikov declined to offer answers and the Russian Ministry of Defense did not respond. (Foreign Policy screenshots)

But it isn’t only American weapons for sale. These channels ran advertisements for a range of assault rifles from around the world, including Russian AK-103 and AK-104 assault rifles made by Russia’s Kalashnikov Concern. FP documented seven AK-103 and four AK-104 assault rifles with visible serial numbers and shared them with both Kalashnikov Concern and the Russian Defense Ministry. In a statement, Kalashnikov Concern declined to provide information about the weapons or to whom they were sold, writing that it “doesn’t render legal and/or expert services to outside parties and individual persons” outside of legal proceedings. Russia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to FP’s questions about how these weapons could have ended up in these arms markets.

Sellers advertised M70 AK-pattern assault rifles from Serbia’s Zastava Arms. FP reached out to Zastava to learn more about the weapons advertised in Syria’s online markets, but the company referred all questions to Serbia’s Ministry of Defense. Serbia’s Defense Ministry told FP that its Directorate for Procurement and Sales “has never sold automatic rifles M70 of the requested register marks.” Additionally, the Telegram markets featured an M02 Coyote 12.7mm heavy machine gun. Reporters from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project have previously documented the diversion of Coyote machine guns from Zastava through Saudi Arabia and into the hands of Syrian rebels.

Telegram arms markets advertised ingredients for making improvised explosive devices, including detonation cord, explosive fill from cluster bomb submunitions, and ammonium nitrate fertilizer. (Foreign Policy screenshots)


Explosives are among the most concerning items for sale in the markets, raising the possibility the homemade bombs and explosive materials could fuel terror attacks outside of Syria, with merchants offering suicide belts for as little as $50.

John Ismay, a former U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer, reviewed images of explosive devices and components for sale in the markets for FP. The items “show a sophisticated understanding of [improvised explosive device] construction, with features designed for maximum reliability and destructive effect,” he said.

The markets excel in helping would-be bomb-makers purchase often hard-to-locate supplies. “The hardest part of building any IED in my mind is getting blasting caps and getting [detonation] cord,” said Ismay. Buyers in the Telegram markets appear to have plentiful opportunities to overcome that hurdle: Electric blasting caps were among the most frequently marketed explosive components, with vendors periodically posting imagery of caps available for a few dollars apiece.

Market sellers have made efficient use of unexploded cluster munitions dropped by government or Russian warplanes on rebel areas of Syria. In multiple postings, sellers offered cast explosive taken from what appear to be dud submunitions from Russian cluster bombs, selling the explosive fill and allowing buyers to repurpose it into their own homemade IEDs.

For those with bomb-making skills, the markets advertise a range of different explosive precursors. Among the items on offer are staples of IED construction, including bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer labeled as made by Mert Global, a Turkish company. The arms-tracing group Conflict Armament Research documented Mert fertilizer products in IEDs made by the Islamic State in Tikrit and Ramadi, Iraq. FP made multiple attempts to reach Mert for comment in both Turkish and English but did not receive a reply.

Drums of nitrocellulose, a flammable chemical with a number of legitimate uses in industrial processes but that also can be used to make explosives for IEDs, were common in the markets as well. FP documented images of nitrocellulose drums for sale labeled as the products of Dow Deutschland, Synthesia, and Nitro Chemical Industry Ltd.

Jörg Hartmann, a spokesman for Dow Deutschland, confirmed that the drum featured in the market came from a batch “produced by Dow in July 2016, and shipped from one of our sites in Germany to longstanding and trusted customers in Turkey.” He declined to specifically identify those customers, writing instead that they included “some end users in the ink and coatings industry as well as some distributors who re-sell the product.” Dow ceased all sales of industrial nitrocellulose to Syria in 2011 following international sanctions on the country.

“The hardest part of building any IED in my mind is getting blasting caps and getting [detonation] cord,” former U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal expert John Ismay told FP. Militants in Syria’s Telegram arms markets appeared to have access to plenty of it. (Foreign Policy screenshots)

Hartmann said the company is not planning to curtail sales of nitrocellulose to any of its customers in Turkey, writing that the company “do[es] not believe that Dow stopping supplies to the Turkish market would have any impact on the alleged issue” because of the chemical’s widespread availability from other producers. Dow Deutschland said that it is “raising awareness among its contacts in the nitrocellulose market” and has “brought the findings [about the advertisement] to the attention of the Worldwide Nitrocellulose Producers Association.”

Hartmann added that “it is not unknown for empty drums to be recycled for secondary use.” FP could not independently verify that the Dow nitrocellulose drum listed for sale on Telegram actually contained nitrocellulose, as advertised.

Drums labeled as the products of Synthesia and Nitro Chemical Industry Ltd. also appeared in the arms markets; FP reached out to both companies, but neither has responded.

Other chemicals for sale held the potential to increase the explosive power of homemade bombs. One seller advertised a drum of aluminum flakes, which can be used as an oxidizer to boost the power of explosive charges and make an enhanced blast explosive. The drum in the advertisement is labeled as the product of Belgium-based AVL Metal Powders, which sells metal powders for use in paints, plastics, and other decorative products, with Elso Kimya, the main distributor for AVL Metal Powders in Turkey, listed as the intended recipient.

Elso Kimya’s chief operating officer, Ralf Elhadef, confirmed that his company purchases all of its metal powders from AVL. But in emails to FP, both Elhadef and AVL commercial director Pierre Van Lerberghe wrote that they could not authenticate the advertised drum as an AVL product because the image of the drum’s label does not show AVL’s unique factory seal — created to help customers distinguish AVL’s products from counterfeits made by Chinese companies — and its batch number is scratched out.

“All of [Elso Kimya’s] inventory is accounted for and all of our merchandise sales are invoiced and taxed according to Turkish Trade Laws,” Elhadef wrote.

Sellers advertised vehicles for sale, from small drones to armored vehicles like a T-55 tank and a BMP infantry fighting vehicle. (Foreign Policy screenshots)


Commercial drones have risen to prominence as tools of war in the Syrian conflict. They are used to film battles for use in militant propaganda videos, are sent on reconnaissance missions, and occasionally serve as small bombers, dropping grenade-sized explosives. The Telegram markets have kept pace with their popularity, selling commercial quadcopters like the popular Phantom 3 drone made by the China-based DJI.

With regard to heavier equipment, sellers have offered a more limited supply of Warsaw Pact armored vehicles. Sellers posted a rusty T-55 tank, common among both Assad regime and rebel forces, for $150,000, and a BMP infantry fighting vehicle for $38,000. Buyers can help maintain the vehicles by picking from a variety of spare parts occasionally posted in the markets.


Militants in Syria have used man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) — shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles — throughout the Syrian war, targeting low-flying Assad regime aircraft. Should they fall into the hands of a terrorist organization, they would represent a particularly potent weapon: Arms-control experts have long been concerned that MANPADS could be used to attack airliners and other civilian aircraft at low altitudes and during take-off and landing. In countries like Iraq and Libya, where MANPADS were plentiful after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regimes, the United States has attempted to reduce the risk with buyback programs.

In Syria, scholars have identified at least eight types of MANPADS present in the hands of rebel groups since the war began in 2011. But despite their availability, thus far there have been no known attempts to use MANPADS against civilian aircraft in Syria or its immediate neighbors.

Matt Schroeder, an expert on MANPADS at Small Arms Survey, reviewed imagery of three separate MANPADS advertisements and was able to identify equipment from systems whose presence in Syria among militants has been previously documented. Included in the advertisements were an SA-7a gripstock, an SA-7b launch tube dating to the early 1970s, and an SA-24 missile tube — although it’s unclear whether the missile is capable of being fired from a MANPADS gripstock or configured only for use with vehicle-mounted systems.

Gripstock for an SA-7a MANPADS. The SA-7 is among the first generation of MANPADS, many of which are likely now unreliable due to poor maintenance and storage. FP also identified more recent MANPADS equipment, including an SA-24 missile tube. (Foreign Policy screenshots)

The SA-7 equipment belongs to systems from the very first generation of MANPADS, weapons that are now severely dated and may no longer be reliable. The SA-24 system, however, is among Russia’s more recent and capable MANPADS, which if paired with the proper gripstock and battery-coolant unit would be able to engage targets from longer ranges with greater accuracy.

Syria is also home to one of the world’s largest concentration of anti-tank missiles. Rebels have used American TOW as well as Russian and Warsaw Pact anti-tank missiles to chew through the Assad regime’s heavily mechanized forces, posting dozens of videos of missile strikes on social media.

The prevalence of these weapons in the conflict is reflected in their availability on the Telegram arms markets. Sellers posted pictures of equipment that apparently belong to TOW anti-tank missile systems, including a daysight tracker and battery assembly. The CIA began supplying anti-Assad rebels with TOW missiles during a program that began under the Obama administration and that the Donald Trump administration decided to end in July. The material available for sale on Telegram could be useful to militants looking to replace worn-out, cracked, or corroded equipment, allowing them to continue launching any TOW missiles leftover from the CIA program. TOW systems are manufactured by the U.S. defense contractor Raytheon and sold to a number of U.S. allies, but FP could not determine whether the TOW equipment offered for sale in the markets came directly from U.S. stockpiles or from one of those allied countries.

Advertisements for anti-tank equipment reviewed by Damien Spleeters of Conflict Armament Research, which documents and traces weapons in conflicts around the world, also show sellers hawking both missiles and firing units for Russian Metis anti-tank missiles and M79 Osa anti-tank rocket launchers.

Antiquities trafficking

The wars in Iraq and Syria have ravaged the region’s cultural heritage, as militant groups like the Islamic State loot antiquities and traffic them on black markets. “There is frequently overlap in the smuggling and sale of weapons and antiquities,” said Michael Danti, a Near Eastern archaeologist at Colgate University who tracks antiquities trafficking with ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives. The two illicit trades, he said, tend to share similar routes, shipments, and dealers.

Along with weapons, at least one user offered up an ancient coin from the reign of a successor to Alexander the Great, who ruled during the late 4th century B.C. and into the early 3rd century B.C. Experts who study antiquities trafficking from Syria and Iraq say it’s not uncommon to see arms and antiquities trafficked alongside each other in the region. (Foreign Policy screenshot)

Syria’s Telegram arms markets are no exception to this pattern, with one seller posting images of an ancient coin dating from a period around the end of the 4th century and beginning of the 3rd century B.C. Experts consulted by FP from ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives, a Boston-based organization that works to protect cultural heritage, identified the piece as a silver tetradrachm minted in western Turkey during the reign of Lysimachus, a king who succeeded Alexander the Great. It has a likely market value of around $850.

Will Telegram do anything?

Telegram is far from the only online service that has played host to the illicit weapons trade — but it has proven an especially popular platform for militants in the Middle East, leading some countries to block access or propose restrictions on the app’s usage. Barring Islamic State content has been a particular challenge for the company, as members of the terrorist group and fans alike have flocked to Telegram as their app of choice for communicating and sharing Islamic State media.

The Syrian arms markets hosted on Telegram were publicly accessible, but the availability of private-chat services on the app have raised concerns among counterterrorism officials who fear that the growing popularity of encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Signal could allow jihadists to communicate and plan without fear of being monitored.

In the course of reporting for this article, the largest of the arms markets, @souq4, disappeared from Telegram without explanation, but a number of others remained open until FP approached Telegram with questions about their policies toward these channels. Telegram spokesman Markus Ra wrote on Nov. 5 that the channels had been shut down that morning, and that the company’s abuse team usually shuts down offending channels within a few hours of their being reported.

“Telegram [has] a zero tolerance policy for promoting violence,” he wrote.

But as Facebook’s experience with users running arms markets in Libya and Iraq illustrates, the problem is not just limited to one platform. As long as the parties to conflicts have a need for weapons and access to the internet, buyers and sellers are likely to meet online and on the social media platforms where people congregate. And while Syria’s Telegram markets have since closed, they might not be gone for very long.

Additional reporting by Jelena Ćosić.

Adam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.

Eric Woods is a contributor at the investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat and a researcher focusing on non-state actors and weapons proliferation. Follow him on Twitter: @AnotherWarBlog

Christiaan Triebert is a journalist focused on conflict, security and development. (@trbrtc)